Whilst most groups at this summer's World Cup contain a strong favourite and a predictable runner-up, Group A does not follow the trend. In Canada, China, the Netherlands and New Zealand we have four decent nations, albeit none that really stand out in a very even group.
The hosts will be most people's pick to finish first given their home advantage and superior world ranking of eighth, but with their three opponents in the group ranking either 17th or higher, it is clear that there is going to be an unpredictable finish in Group A.
Goalkeepers: Stephanie Labbe (unattached), Karina LeBlanc (Chicago Red Stars), Erin McLeod (Houston Dash).
Defenders: Kadeisha Buchanan (West Virginia University), Allysha Chapman (Houston Dash), Robyn Gayle (unattached), Carmelina Moscato (unattached), Marie-Eve Nault (unattached), Lauren Sesselmann (Houston Dash), Rhian Wilkinson (Portland Thorns), Emily Zurrer (unattached).
Midfielders: Jessie Fleming (London NorWest SC), Selenia Iacchelli (unattached), Kaylyn Kyle (Portland Thorns), Ashley Lawrence (West Virginia University), Diana Matheson (Washington Spirit), Desiree Scott (Notts County), Sophie Schmidt (unattached).
Forwards: Josee Belanger (unattached), Jonelle Filigno (Sky Blue FC), Adriana Leon (Chicago Red Stars), Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns), Melissa Tancredi (Chicago Red Stars).
Canada head into the summer as one of the underdogs for the World Cup title, with their advantage as the hosts seeing people fancy their chances a little more perhaps than if they were playing the competition elsewhere. On top of that, the group they have been drawn in is something of a gift, alongside three teams they will expect to beat. The Netherlands arguably provide them with their toughest task, but Canada's experience should see them through that game.
Their squad is heavily based in the USA's NWSL, with 11 of the players selected playing in the league which is up there as one of the best in the world. One of those 11 is Christine Sinclair, their own version of Abby Wambach some might say when you look at her international achievements, but she offers much more than the 35-year-old American on the pitch. With 153 goals in 222 games for her national side, she is certainly as prolific a goal-scorer, but she is technically superior to Wambach and offers a lot more going forward, able to make defence-splitting passes via her exceptional creativity and even play as an attacking midfielder if desired.
Nonetheless, one particular worry for John Herdman is that the other four forwards he has selected are not playing regularly like Sinclair in the build up to the summer. Jonelle Filigno, Adriana Leon and Melissa Tancredi are not playing for their respective NWSL clubs right now, whilst Josee Belanger is one of seven players not representing a team at the moment in preparation for the World Cup. Stephanie Labbe, Robyn Gayle, Carmelina Moscato, Marie-Eve Nault, Emily Zurrer, Selenia Iacchelli and Sophie Schmidt are the other six players unattached, whilst Desiree Scott has opted to sit the first half of the season out with her club Notts County in the WSL in order to get ready for the summer. This could be something of a worry for Herdman as it leaves a significant handful of his squad lacking proper match fitness heading into the competition.
However, let's focus on the positives for Canada. Firstly, they are bound to be one of the most difficult sides to break down this summer given the quality they possess at the back. Karina LeBlanc and Erin McLeod will compete for the number one jersey, both fantastic goalkeepers with over 100 caps worth of experience for their country, meaning whoever is awarded the starting berth for each game is bound to be in top form.
Their back four will carry some fantastic names too. Rhian Wilkinson will lead the line with her superb experience, whilst Lauren Sesselmann and Allysha Chapman are likely to accompany her at the back, both of whom have started their 2015 campaign with Houston Dash in positive fashion. Kadeisha Buchanan is another inclusion; the 19-year-old defender at West Viriginia University who is reportedly a transfer target for French giants Lyon - this link says more about her talent than anything else could. With Gayle, Moscato, Nault and Zurrer also in the squad, it is clear to see that Canada will have a great back four given the endless top-quality combinations they can provide.
Their midfield also carries a good mix of youth and experience. Cap-centurions Schmidt and Diana Matheson provide the latter, as do Scott and Kaylyn Kyle with 89 and 95 caps respectively, whilst 17-year-old Jessie Fleming and 19-year-old Ashley Lawrence bring the youth and the confidence, energy and fearlessness associated with it. There are many different ways that Herdman can approach games given the variety of different midfielders he has selected and this will allow for rotation and rest too to keep his squad fresh for the games.
As a team, Canada work hard for each other and work as a unit, with good chemistry and understanding between them to help them put flowing passing moves together and communicate well to ensure they defend effectively. They may not be one of the favourites this summer, but they are one team many will not want to face when you take this into account as well as their home advantage. They should progress as winners from their group and defeat the third placed team they are drawn against in the round of 16 (Australia by my predictions), but the likelihood of a draw against England, aka their bogey team, in the quarter-finals will spell the end of their tournament.
Goalkeepers: Zhang Yue (Beijing Enterprises Group), Wang Fei (Turbine Potsdam), Zhao Lina (Shanghai Guotai Junan Vinpac).
Defenders: Li Dongna (Suwon FMC), Li Jiayue (Shanghai Guotai Junan Vinpac), Liu Shanshan (Hebei Zhongji), Pang Fengyue (Dalian Junfeng), Wu Haiyan (Shandong).
Midfielders: Wang Shanshan (Tianjin Huisen), Gu Yasha (Beijing Enterprises Group), Han Peng (Tianjin Huisen), Lei Jiahui (Henan), Lou Jiahui (Henan), Ren Guixin (Changchun Dazhong Zhuoyue), Tan Ruyin (Guangdong Sports Lottery), Tang Jiali (Shanghai Guotai Junan Vinpac), Wang Lisi (Jiangsu Huatai), Xu Yanlu (Jiangsu Huatai), Zhang Rui (Liberation Army).
Forwards: Li Ying (Shandong), Ma Jun (Daejeon Sportstoto), Wang Shuang (Wuhan Jianghan University), Zhao Rong (Beijing Enterprises Group).
Whilst their Asian neighbours Japan and, to an extent with the recent form of Ji So-Yun, South Korea will have all eyes on them this summer, China are much lesser known going into the summer with few recognisable names to world football fans.
Goalkeeper Wang Fei who plies her trade with 2015 German Cup runners-up Turbine Potsdam is arguably the most well-known player they will bring to Canada this summer, and this is perhaps due to the fact that the nation will have one of the youngest teams at the competition with an average age of 23. All but three of these players play their football in their home country so this summer is a chance for them to shine as individuals, as well as as a team, in order to possibly earn a move abroad to a league that can help them develop more.
They certainly have some promising young players too, that much is evident. In their latest friendly against England in April, Wang Shanshan and Xu Yanlu stood out in particular as two players who can hurt teams going forward, especially when they link up and produce some lovely combination play. Wang, despite being listed as a midfielder by China in their squad, operated as more of a centre-forward against England and was an effective one at that. She is energetic, makes great runs off the ball and gets into the positions where she can score goals. Her aerial ability was also a surprising problem for England, with a good leap seeing her win plenty headers despite her small stature - she scored a header in the game in fact - whilst the 25-year-old is often deployed out wide too and loves to cut inside to shoot.
As for Xu, she is the one who makes China tick. She is their creative playmaker, operating in a free role in midfield and exploiting any space she can find, playing defence-splitting through balls to meet the runs of her teammates or shooting in and around the box with similar success. Xu is technically excellent, skilful on the ball and difficult to dispossess. She takes on opponents with ease and will be a absolute nightmare for defenders this summer, perhaps needing to be man-marked for the entirety of games to thwart her influence.
Shuang Wang is another talented footballer China can boast, the forward a threat stood over a dead ball in particular, able to deliver great crosses into the area and also hit the target both powerfully and accurately from distance. Though she is often one of China's strikers, she tends to drift out wide to utilise her great crossing ability and create the space for Shanshan Wang to run through the middle instead. The team's tactical flexibility and flowing change of positions is another strength, one which keeps defenders on their toes and drags them out of position at times too.
Another thing apparent in the England game was the team spirit in the side. Having gone 2-0 down inside 15 minutes, the team huddled together after conceding the second goal and their discussion certainly worked as, having been on the ropes prior, they got back into the game, pulled a goal back and ended the match as the stronger team, unfortunate to lose. The chemistry in the team is very high and it means they work as one, willing to track back, help out one another and are a tough unit to breakdown as a result. With the nation still so young as well, this is likely to only increase as the years go by too, which is another reason why they are a promising nation.
Despite all this, preparation for the summer has not been going well, with the team winless in their last ten games, a run that stretches back to mid-December. Defeats to the likes of Brazil, Canada, Germany, Sweden and England are perhaps excusable, and it's great to see the team willing to test themselves against the very best before the summer, but they should be beating teams such as Portugal, Argentina and Mexico, only one of whom has qualified for the World Cup this year. These are teams lower than the standard they will face in Canada, with the Netherlands and New Zealand much stronger and likely to be bigger tests.
China's defence has been their biggest flaw in the build up to this summer and the main reason why they have lost so many games. Manager Hao Wei prefers to play Yue Zhang in between the sticks than Turbine Potsdam's superb Wang Fei, and this is where the problems begin.
Zhang's communication with her back line is extremely poor, with mix-ups occurring between her and her defenders frequently, whilst her kicking is also sub-standard, failing to reach the halfway line most of the time and often falling right at the feet of her opponents both from dead balls and open play. Zhang's defence do not help her out either, with short and dangerous back-passes far from a rarity and the back line as a whole insistent on knocking the ball around between them despite both them and their goalkeeper not being the best on the ball, especially under pressure. If China continue this risky play this summer, they will be punished by some of the world-class talent on show and their hopes of reaching the knockout round will be over rather abruptly.
Overall, China are a promising side. They are young, full of raw talent and are fortunate to have earned themselves such a wonderful experience in a World Cup with the team still developing. The tournament will do the team's experience and growth a world of good and hopefully many of the players will attract interest from clubs in bigger leagues to aid the team's progression even further. Canada comes too soon, with China likely to crash out at the group stages in an equal but competitive group in which they will struggle. However, the 2019 edition could be a big one for them if the country continues to make great strides like it is doing.
Prediction: Out at the group stages.
Goalkeepers: Loes Geurts (Kopparbergs/Goteborg), Sari van Veenendaal (FC Twente), Angela Christ (PSV Eindhoven).
Defenders: Stefanie van der Gragt (Telstar), Mandy van den Berg (Kvinner), Petra Hogewoning (Ajax), Dyanna Bito (Telstar), Dominique Janssen (Essen), Maran van Erp (PSV Eindhoven), Shanice van de Sanden (FC Twente).
Midfielders: Desiree van Lunteren (Ajax), Sherida Spitse (Kvinner), Danielle van de Donk (PSV Eindhoven), Lieke Martens (Kopparbergs/Goteborg), Merel van Dongen (Ajax), Anouk Hoogendijk (Ajax), Tessel Middag (Ajax), Jill Roord (FC Twente), Vanity Lewerissa (Standard Liege).
Forwards: Anouk Dekker (FC Twente), Manon Melis (Kopparbergs/Goteborg), Vivanne Miedema (Bayern Munich), Kirsten van de Ven (Rosengard), Shanice van de Sanden (FC Twente).
The Netherlands are one of many exciting, young teams that we will see in Canada this summer as they make their debut at a World Cup with a squad containing just three players over the age of 30 and 13 either 24 or under. Despite failing to qualify automatically from their group, the Dutch were impressive in the European play-offs as they overcame Scotland and Italy to get to the tournament, showcasing their attacking talent in some lively offensive performances.
This eye-catching attack is spearheaded by none other than Bayern Munich's 18-year-old striker, Vivanne Miedema. In her first season in Germany, she may not have yet matched her sensational 41 goals scored for Heerenveen the year before, totting up seven in the league and one in the cup, but she's off to a solid start and has a wonderful record for her country having netted 19 goals in 23 appearances.
Either side of her will be 28-year-old cap centurion Manon Melis and another young but experienced talent in Lieke Martens. Both of these players have learned to contribute their fair share of goals over time too, Melis having 54 to boast from her 123 appearances and Martens 20 in 49. Behind these three sits Danielle van de Donk, the conductor of the team's success, pulling all the strings and controlling the game in the middle of the park, as well as the battling, whilst the hard-working duo of Sherida Spitse and Anouk Dekker get the dirty work done.
One problem the Netherlands face though is a lack of depth when it comes to their attacking options. The aforementioned players all make up the team's strongest eleven, but they cannot all play every single minute of every single game. What if one of them gets injured, tired or a substitute needs to be made to influence the outcome of a game in the Dutch's favour? Kirsten van de Ven, despite her experience, has never been a reliable goal-scorer, with 16 in her 82 international appearances and none so far in the 2015 Damallsvenskan season with Rosengard.
However, Roser Reijners has recognised this and decided to gamble on the selection of a few young, but in-form, attack-minded midfielders. Vanity Lewerissa is one of these following an impressive season with Standard Liege in which she netted 15 goals in 21 games, 18-year-old Jill Roord another after she scored 13 times for FC Twente in 24 games, whilst Merel van Dongen turned a fair few heads with her performances for Ajax. All these three are yet to even reach five caps for their country, but their naivety means they will be fearless, not feeling any pressure, and they will also be extremely unknown to opponents so can cause plenty of damage.
Defensively, the Dutch are pretty strong too. In Loes Geurts, they have a commanding presence and superb shot-stopper in between the sticks who any back four would feel comfortable in front of. The back four is then usually comprised of Siri Worm at right-back, Stefanie van der Gragt and Mandy van den Berg in the middle and one of Petra Hogewoning or Claudia van den Heiligenberg at left-back, though Desiree van Lunteren has played there on a few recent occasions too. Unfortunately, Worm and van den Heiligenberg will miss the summer's competition through injury, but with veteran Dyanna Bito able to cover across the back four, they still have a range of strong options as well as two promising young players in Dominique Janssen and Maran van Erp, who have also made the squad after solid showings in the season just gone with their respective clubs.
The Netherlands' undoing this summer will be an over-reliance on their starting attackers. If other players do not step up and start sharing the goal-scoring responsibility, then the Dutch could struggle to break down some of the tougher opponents they will face. Their defence is strong enough to hold out for some narrow victories, but against bigger nations they need to ensure they can reply if they do go a goal down.
Group A, however, should be a breeze for them. I believe Canada's status as hosts will give them a slight advantage to lift them to the top of the group, but the Netherlands can easily finish second, with China and New Zealand not good enough to really trouble them. Personally though, I see Switzerland beating Japan to top spot in Group C, meaning the Dutch will meet the latter, the reigning world champions, in the last sixteen and this will spell the end of their tournament. The experience gained by their young players will be key though and could lead to them becoming one of the world's big teams in years to come.
Prediction: Last sixteen.
Goalkeepers: Cushla Lichtwark (Upper Hutt City), Erin Nayler (Norwest United), Rebecca Rolls (Three Kings United).
Defenders: Catherline Bott (Forrest Hill Milford United), Abby Erceg (Chicago Red Stars), Anna Green (Fencibles United), Meikayla Moore (Eastern Suburbs), Ria Percival (USV Jena), Ali Riley (Rosengard), Rebekah Stott (Claudelands Rovers).
Midfielders: Katie Bowen (University of North Carolina), Daisy Cleverley (Forrest Hill Milford United), Katie Hoyle (Zurich), Betsy Hassett (Fencibles United), Annalie Longo (Coastal Spirit), Evie Millyn (Western Springs), Kirsty Yallop (Vittsjo).
Forwards: Sarah Gregorius (Elfen Saitama), Amber Hearn (USV Jena), Emma Kete (Fencibles United), Jasmine Pereira (Three Kings United), Rosie White (Fencibles United), Hannah Wilkinson (Univesity of Tennessee).
Whilst neighbours Australia were drawn in the group of death, New Zealand will be feeling optimistic about their chances of qualifying for the knockout round in this summer's World Cup having been placed in a group that lacks a real favourite. To try and accomplish this, manager Tony Readings has selected a squad with a mixture of experience and youth, with some well recognised names in the team alongside some unknown but promising players.
The majority of the team have World Cup experience following their appearance in the competition in Germany four years ago, but one player who is bound to make her first appearance at the tournament this summer despite being included in that 2011 squad is goalkeeper Erin Nayler. She was the only uncapped player four years ago, but she looks to have secured the number one jersey now aged 23 and will be eager to impress, hoping to hold onto the privilege for many years to come with her nearest competitors in their 30s.
In front of her, Nayler will have a wonderfully reliable back four. Cap centurions Abby Erceg and Ria Percival are likely to make up the majority of these back lines regardless of rotation, as is Ali Riley of Rosengard, eight caps off her 100th. Rebekah Stott looks to have nailed down the remaining spot, but faces competition from teenager Meikayla Moore who has made a handful of impressive appearances to earn a spot on the roster. With the exception of the latter, all of these candidates have a great amount of experience not only internationally, but in some of the World's best leagues.
All but Stott have played in America at some point in their careers, whilst all but Riley have competed in Germany's Frauen-Bundesliga, widely regarded as the best league in the world. Riley has also enjoyed a good couple of years in Sweden now playing alongside and against some of the biggest names in the game. They have all showed at these high levels just how good they are and will be confident in keeping the clean sheets necessary to assist their nation in progressing from this group.
One thing that stands out in this team is the remarkable amount of caps players under 25 have managed to achieve. The Football Ferns' midfield exhibits this perfectly, with 90s born duo Betsy Hassett and Annalie Longo boasting 77 each, both still at an age which will cause many to refer to them as 'youngsters'. Longo has more or less nailed down her place in the starting eleven, whilst Hassett tends to be in and out quite a lot, though always used when on the bench as an impact sub to help her side be a bit more creative going forward.
Katie Hoyle is one of the first names on the teamsheet, the Zurich midfielder having just surpassed the hundred cap mark, but Swedish side Vittsjo's Kirsty Yallop and Katie Bowen of the University of North Carolina get their fair share of games in the way that Hassett does. The Football Ferns certainly have depth in the middle of the park and can use this to ensure fresh legs are out on the pitch for every game, despite them coming thick and fast.
Going forward, New Zealand have plenty of reliable goal-scorers. With four strikers in double figures for their nation, the goals are spread out across the front line as well as added to by the midfield and defence at times too. Amber Hearn leads the way with 45 strikes in 98 games, but given her poor domestic form with USV Jena in Germany this season that saw her score just three times, she may not be Readings' preferred option this summer. Having said this, Sarah Gregorius has not got off to the best of starts in Japan with Elfen Saitama, the team having scored just five goals as a whole in their first nine games this year, whilst Emma Kete has returned to her home country's low level league after far from successful spells in America and England.
23-year-old Hannah Wilkinson, at the University of Tennessee, 22-year-old Rosie White, at Fencibles United with Kete, and 18-year-old Jasmine Pereira, at Three Kings United in New Zealand, may have to be relied on instead for their fearlessness, energy and confidence in front of goal despite not playing at the highest levels. Hearn and Gregorius have the experience to put their goal-scoring ruts behind them, but if they do not do this quickly then Readings may have to gamble on a younger player given the lack of time there is to make up for poor results.
Wilkinson and White share over 100 caps between them at international level too and a total of 36 goals, so perhaps turning to them is not the craziest thing Readings could do. It will be their success in front of goal that will shape New Zealand's tournament, so it is important that the most confident and in-form strikers are deployed with full trust in them to do the job.
The defence will also be key if they are to do well this summer too as their stubbornness can help make up for the lack of goals up top to ensure results still come their way. The Netherlands and China will pose the greatest threats to their back line given the energy of their forwards, whilst Canada may be surprisingly easier to tame given that Christine Sinclair is really the only player playing and scoring regularly coming into the tournament.
Still, I think that the strength New Zealand possess in midfield in particular can help them beat China to third place and they will qualify as one of the best in this position to reach the last sixteen. However, the likelihood of a tie against favourites Germany in the first knockout round will abruptly spell the end of their summer.
Prediction: Last sixteen.
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